On the Trail

The Spirit of the Working Class

David Driscoll

We have a tendency in America to think of whiskey as the blue collar spirit; the type of down-home drink our everyman ideal enjoys at the end of a long day. A shot and a beer. A small respite from the toil and trouble of the night shift. Yet, is a glass of Bourbon really the drink of the American masses when it's being produced by multi-billion dollar conglomerates, most of whom are headquartered outside the country? Is a shot of Jameson or Bushmills still the pride of the Irish proletariat when the country's three main producers are owned by French, Mexican, and Japanese corporations? Whiskey is big business these days. In fact, it's so lucrative that most of the brands we cut our teeth on have become part of incredibly large drink portfolios, destined to dominate the world through volume and market share. That being said, where should the common man look these days to get a shot of something robust and warming, made by the people, for the people? The answer is Gascony, France. Indeed, Armagnac is truly the last major brown spirit region untouched by corporate hands.

Life in Gascony is a simple one with simple needs and simple pleasures. A loaf of fresh bread. A plate of fois gras. A glass of rosé with lunch and a small serving of Armagnac afterward; that's it. You enjoy the simple things of Earth's existence—the things that make living worthwhile. While many Americans continue to be intimidated (and therefore put off) by the refinements of the French lifestyle, there's nothing snooty or highbrow about la vie de Gascogne. The people of Château de Pellehaut, for example, are no different than you and me. The Béraut family lives a simple life in the countryside of the Ténereze, not far from the small village of Montreal-du-Gers. They like to sit outside, eat, drink, and talk; just like us. Their wines are not expensive, nor are their brandies. They are humble, but well-made necessities of living.

Unlike most whiskey producers, the folks at Pellehaut (and most Armagnac houses) handle every step of the process—from the vineyard to the still to the barrel to the bottle. Located near the town of Montreal-du-Gers, Pellehaut has 140 hectares of fruit in the Ténarèze and they mature their distilled spirit in a variety of different casks. Owned by the Béraut family, which purchased the estate after WWII, the property is run today by the sons of Gaston: Matheau and Martin, who have apprenticed at Tariquet, Beycheville, and even Au Bon Climat near Santa Barbara. Today they grow mostly ugni blanc and folle blanche grapes, which are also used in their simple, affordable, everyday wines. For maturation, they begin with new oak (of various types), but often transfer the brandy to 400 liter barrels when the wood becomes too dominant a flavor. There's nothing fancy going on at Pellehaut, just good, honest brown water from folks with humble ambitions. To me, it seems like many American drinkers dream of Bourbon's ideal, while the romance actually lies in Armagnac. There are many similarities between the two spirits. Both are aged in new oak, both have rich wood flavor, and both are made in an unpolished, bold, unabashed style. For a simple introduction to the genre, check out the Pellehaut "L'Age de Glace" for less than thirty bucks—an exclusive at K&L that just came back into stock. For something more intense, check out the 2001 Pellehaut 15 Year Old at fifty bucks. There's nothing that comes close in the whiskey category for that price.

But that's because there ain't no fifteen year old whiskey for fifty bucks. Fifteen year old American whiskies these days are trophies. Fifteen year old Armagnacs, however? They're just simple necessities of living for reasonable prices.

-David Driscoll